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Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Kohala Ditch -- by Pat Rorie

Twenty-five years later and in the same spirit of exploration/discovery exemplified by HTMC legends John Hall and Fred Dodge during their 1977 Kohala Ditch adventure, Mark Short and I traveled to the Big Island this past July 4th weekend to experience the region for ourselves.
Pat Rorie -- Photo by Nathan Yuen
Of the Kohala Ditch Trip, Stuart Ball writes..."Kohala Ditch is a rugged loop trip in the windward Kohala Mountains of the Big Island. The route initially traverses several massive ridges and deep canyons with fast flowing streams. The return portion is along the coast where black sand beaches alternate with steep sea cliffs. Much of the trail follows an abandoned ditch, once used to channel stream water to a sugar cane plantation near Hawi."*Brief History:17 miles in length, the Kohala Ditch required 18 months and 17 lives to complete, with opening ceremonies occurring on June 11, 1906. Japanese laborers comprised most of the workforce and they lived in ramshackle camps scattered around the mountain valleys in buildings generally constructed with hapu'u fern logs for floors and an 'ohi'a framework covered with tar paper to form walls and roofs.== Wednesday, July 3, 2002Mark and I rendezvoused at Kona airport Wednesday afternoon under mostly cloudy skies, and a downpour drenched the area while we were getting into the rental car."Isn't this the dry side of the island?" I queried Mark."This doesn't bode well for the rest of the trip" I concluded.From Kona airport, the two of us drove to the North Kohala village of Kapaau to pick up a few last minute items (burritoes for Mark and postcards for me). Upon our arrival Keokea Beach Park, the rain subsided, and we immediately commenced tent/hammock set-up. Later, we kicked back under the pavilion, conversing on a variety of subjects as I prepared and consumed dinner (Mark had already eaten his burritoes).
Mark Short
At 12:45 am while sound asleep inside our respective temporary abodes, the police arrived and politely informed us that we had to leave (camping is no longer allowed at Keokea)."Ah, there's nothing like breaking down your tent in the rain, while half asleep, in the wee early morning hours with the uncertainty of where you'll end up camping later that morning" I thought to myself. :-)Fortunately, we found refuge at Kapaa Beach Park, a few miles to the south of Hawi and returned to slumberland at approx. 2 am.== Thursday, July 4, 2002 "Pololu Valley Lookout to a campsite deep inside Honokane Nui Valley"Mark and I arose at 6:15 am and prepared for the opening leg of our backpack,  including a return to Keokea to obtain water and use the Men's room. From Keokea, we motored 1 mile to the Pololu Valley overlook (elev. 486 ft) where I parked the car. The two of us proceeded on foot at approx. 7:30 am heading mauka on a dirt road through pastureland on a cloudy, grey, drizzly morning. En route to the Kohala Ditch Trailhead, we startled a small group of cows but did not start a stampede.The initial 1.5 miles of the graded contour Kohala Ditch Trail (KDT) is wide open and features nice views of Pololu Valley stretching to the ocean, as well as 5 waterfalls along the trail, the first being a magnificent twin gusher, flowing high above and then under a concrete bridge, and the 5th (Kapaloa Falls) dropping 300 feet above the trail and 200 feet below it as the cascade flows over the trail. Hikers actually walk behind the cascade, and I did just that a few times.
Kapaloa Falls
Beyond Kapaloa Falls marks the end of the improved segment, overgrowth and small dirt/rock slides clog the footpath, footing is definately compromised. Well on our way into upper Pololu Valley, Mark and I lost the trail, but after studying a copy of a topo map provided by Stuart Ball and some poking around, we reacquired the KDT, fording coffee colored Pololu Stream in the process. To help future KDT hikers avoid confusion, I recorded the following in my notebook...
"Reach a junction. Continue straight on the wide KDT (the narrow trail on the left marked with a red ribbon descends to the stream via short switchbacks). Farther ahead, switchback once, cross Pololu Stream and then gain elevation via 6 switchbacks (the 5th located at the end of a line of tall swamp-mahogany trees)"Above the switchbacks, the two of us stopped to observe a pair of wild pigs and their young foraging in the woods on the opposite side of a tributary, and on the way out of the valley, we walked past a few junipers and several lobelia 'oha trees. As Mark and I reached the crest of the ridge separating Pololu and Honokane Nui Valleys (elev. 1,800 ft) at approx. 12:15 pm, the weather finally settled to mostly sunny with big patches of blue sky.En route to the floor of Honokane Nui, we marveled at the sheer verdant walls of the gorge, three narrow cascades gently flowing down the pali. The vista reminded Mark of a scene from the motion picture "Jurassic Park".Upon completing the descent to the valley floor, the two of us struggled to ford swollen, rushing Honokane Nui Stream, desiring to keep our packs dry and avoid a mishap in the river. After accomplishing the 9th (and final) stream crossing, Mark and I passed a pair of rustic cabins at a clearing a short distance ahead, then walked above the river via a fairly new suspension bridge.Still deeper in the gorge, the two of us arrived at the Awini Weir (an impressive dam, elev. 1,000 ft) at 4:15 pm, which is a stones throw from a cable once suspended above the stream to ferry a small metal cart back and forth. We dropped our packs, Mark for the purpose of taking a nap while I went up stream a short distance for a dip in an inviting pool (but even then, I could feel the current pulling me toward the dam, so the refreshing plunge didn't last long). I discovered a perfectly shaped sun rock and stretched out on it for some shut eye.Prior to darkness setting in, the two of us established camp near the weir. At 8 pm Mark retired for the evening inside his hammock, but I stayed awake a few more hours to enjoy the star-filled mosquito-free night, the sound of the stream plunging over the dam my constant audio companion.== Friday, July 5, 2002 "Honokane Nui Valley to a cabin nestled high above Honopue Valley"Following a relaxing breakfast near the weir, Mark and I packed for the second leg of our journey. By 8:30 am we were retracing our steps along the KDT in search of the first of a series of switchbacks which would take us high above the valley floor and connect with a long contour section cut into Honokane Nui's east wall.After about half an hour of mucking around a wooded area of mostly guava trees, I discovered the lowest switchback and communicated my finding to Mark. Soon we found ourselves methodically gaining elevation, pausing on at least a couple of occasions to look almost straight down at the dam and stream, both of us also delighting in the superb view of the gorge as it continued mauka toward the base of the Kohala Mountain Range.When we reached the top of the 9th (and final) switchback, Mark and I began contouring high above the valley at the 1,800 ft level, the sheer windward pali just below the summit crest of the Kohala Mountain Range visible in the distance, as well as the abrupt verdant cliffs of Honokane Nui's west wall across the valley, and the cabins we had passed the previous day approx. 1,000 ft beneath. The graded contour footpath was surprisingly wide and open, short segments almost perfectly preserved from the original construction. Thus, we made good time on the way out of Honokane Nui. However, at 10:30 am, a steady drizzle and thick fog engulfed the trail, robbing us of the outstanding sights. Farther ahead, the two of us stopped for a snack break at 11 am at the bend where the trail begins contouring into the prominent gully containing Honokane Iki Stream (west branch).Pressing on half an hour later, Mark and I easily negotiated the first gully, but when we arrived at the top of a broad ridge, we mistakenly headed inland, led by blue ribbons tied periodically to tree limbs. Once the two of us realized that we were no longer on the KDT, we retraced our steps and simply crossed the ridge west to east, which led to the continuation of the graded contour footpath. Meanwhile, the light rain subsided for the most part, and the fog lifted, revealing the dominant topographical features of the region - lush, light green uluhe covered slopes, interspersed with clumps of 'ohi'a trees.The next ravine required slightly more effort to pass. At an old wooden bridge with no rungs, suspended 30 feet above surging Honokane Iki Stream (east branch), Mark opted to crawl over the structure on all fours. I, on the other hand, burdened with a heavy 45 pound pack, chose to backtrack and descend to the bottom of the gully then employ a rope to get to the other side of the bridge. Beyond the ravine, the trail straightened out (relatively speaking) through broad terrain. Mark noticed feral cattle tracks/dung and pointed them out to me.Shortly before 1 pm, we reached the KDT/Awini Trail junction at the top of a eucalyptus forest. We descended briefly to have a closer look at AWINI HALE, a rustic cabin nestled amongst the eucalyptus, then returned to the trail junction.After winding in and out of three ravines and a prominent gully choked with ginger, featuring fast flowing Waipahi Stream, Mark and I arrived at a broad grassy area and the location of a lone, tall norfolk island pine (good spot to camp).As we entered Honokea Valley, Mark and I paused to enjoy a nice vista between 'ohi'a lehua trees of the valley floor far below stretching to the ocean, sea cliffs framing the front of the valley. Continuing on, we walked past a series of small, lovely waterfalls situated above and below the trail, crossed rushing Honokea Stream, and, while exiting Honokea via one switchback, delighted in the sight of a high cascade (fed by the series of waterfalls we had passed earlier) on the opposite side of the valley.Leaving Honokea behind, the two of us contoured in and out of 5 additional gullies.Upon rounding the bend in the KDT that leads to the first awesome overlook of Honopue Valley at 2:55 pm, we stopped dead in our tracks to gawk at the incredible sights. A narrow, 1600-foot cascade existed on the other side of the valley a short distance mauka of another cabin (nestled on the crest of Honopue's east wall), and a second high waterfall could be seen some distance makai of the cabin. When contouring well above the valley floor, I had to halt on several occasions to take in the spectacular view of the stream and verdant valley floor far below as they stretched to the ocean, the valley's origin framed by near vertical sea cliffs.Deeper into the glen, the walls of Honopue closed in, transforming the valley into a gorge, and yet another high cascade plunging hundreds of feet became visible.To get to the east wall, Mark and I took turns carefully tramping across a narrow 30-foot-long bridge suspended two hundred feet above surging Honopue Stream. A sign attached to the trestle which read "Bridge Unsafe" certainly didn't boost our confidence in the elevated structure. However, the catwalk appeared in much better shape than its predecessor - an old, decaying wooden bridge.Ultimately, the two of us arrived at the grassy lawn fronting the cabin (elev. 2,045 ft) at 4:47 pm, which afforded a magnificent vista of Honopue's verdant west wall (two clumps of tall loulu palms and a copious amount of kukui trees clinging to the side), the valley floor stretching to the sea cliff frame, waves breaking into the mouth of Honopue Stream, much of the North Kohala coast, the vast Pacific Ocean off the coast, and, in the distance, the island of Maui from Hana to Haleakala. Both of us stretched out on the lawn in the late afternoon sunshine to relax and enjoy the view before commencing the task of erecting our temporary shelters.Later, Mark and I witnessed a beautiful sunset. As darkness set in and the temperature dropped, I donned a red REI sweater once owned by John Hall to keep warm. Perhaps Professor Hall wore the same item of clothing during his 1977 Kohala Ditch trek.Overcast conditions prevailed, thus greatly limiting star-gazing opportunities, and passing trade showers soaked the region, the beacon of light emanating from the North Kohala lighthouse visible in the distance.== Saturday, July 6, 2002 "A day hike to the end of the KDT (and powerful Waikaloa Falls)"A leisurely morning ensued, Mark lounging on the lawn preparing breakfast while I paid a visit to the spot on the trail where a stream fed the 1600-foot cascade, to fetch water, shave, and experience getting drenched in a small cascade.By 9:45 am we finally had our act together for a day hike and headed east with the goal of reaching the very end of the KDT. It felt so good to travel minus a heavy backpack. A short distance beyond the cabin, the two of us entered the first prominent gully, which contained an old wooden bridge supporting a rusted out ditch and a gentle stream pouring over a dam backed by ginger feeding a small but lovely pool. Next, we traversed a broad area, frightening a black wild boar in the process.Kolealiilii Gulch followed and featured a nicely flowing stream along with a swimming hole just below the stream crossing. As we started penetrating Oniu Gulch, Mark and I certainly noticed the sight and smell of pig dung on the trail. Oniu had two pipes stretching across the stream and included picturesque pools fed by tiny waterfalls surrounded by ginger.While inside Paohia Gulch, Mark recognized a small frog near the stream crossing and brought his finding to my attention. After Paohia came a relatively straight section through broad terrain. A few gardenia trees, complete with pretty white fragrant flowers, were situated along the footpath in this region, and I couldn't help but think of my friend Charlotte Yamane, who loves gardenia flowers.Comprised of steep walls, thick stands of guava and a powerful stream, Ohiahuea Gorge was the location of another skinny suspension brige, the newer version adjacent to the wooden original.From Ohiahuea, Mark and I wound in and out of 6 more gullies then began tramping into Waikaloa Gorge. We skirted a major landslide (the end of the KDT according to the map) and penetrated deep inside the canyon above powerful Waikaloa Stream. The trail narrowed considerably, and, upon descending to the river, we discovered a collapsed suspension bridge similar to the ones we'd already crossed and that the footpath contoured gradually up the east wall. We forded coffee colored Waikaloa Stream, continued along the KDT until it became badly choked with 'uluhe lau nui ferns, then, at 12:45 pm, decided to bail on the idea of going any farther.As a consolation, the two of us backtracked to the river and rock hopped up stream a distance until arriving at the base of pool fed by a powerful 15-foot waterfall. I immediately jumped into the swimming hole and tried to frolic in the water directly below the falls, but it was just too much (I felt the force of the deluge holding me under). Undaunted, I climbed to the right of the falls, crawled behind it and experienced what surfers desire when they attempt the north shore pipeline in the winter months - a wall of water flowing right in front of my face. Way cool! Mark said later that he could not see me behind the falls. I also produced some primal noises and delighted in a soothing massage afforded by the falls prior to joining Mark in front of the pool.At 2 pm Mark and I commenced the return leg down Waikaloa Stream and along the KDT to the cabin above Honopue Valley, gaining pleasure from the beautiful afternoon weather en route. When we reached the grassy lawn fronting the cottage at 4:39 pm, the two of us opted to kick back for the remainder of the day rather than doing another hike.Despite the less than ideal sunset and cooler temperatures than the previous evening, the night sky provided excellent star-gazing. Notwithstanding, clouds eventually moved in bringing passing trade showers, which motivated me to retire to the dry confines of my tent.== Sunday, July 7, 2002 "Out the coast! Honopue Valley to the Pololu Valley Lookout"Morning showers helped expedite the packing process, and at approx. 8:30 am, Mark and I departed the cabin bound for the spot well above Pololu Beach where our pilgrimage had begun a few days earlier.Once again, we carefully negotiated the narrow suspension brige in the back of Honopue, fog engulfing the gorge, giving the region an erie feel. However, as the two of us contoured out of the canyon along the steep west wall, we emerged from the clouds and enjoyed one last view of the 1600-foot cascade and the valley floor far below stretching to the sea cliff frame.By 11:30 am Mark and I had retraced our steps to the KDT/Awini Trail junction at the top of the eucalyptus forest and stopped there for a break. A blister on Mark's right foot had finally burst, requiring immediate medical attention. The weather: no rain but no sunshine either, a nice breeze, high overcast and good views of the ocean in the distance.Pressing on at noon, the two of us gradually descended a broad ridge via the Awini Trail past AWINI HALE, through an open gate between a line of tall eucalyptus, and past an 'ohi'a forest on the right (the sound of native birds clearly audible). While contouring into a gulch, we crossed a wide, wooden bridge suspended over a nicely flowing stream, and, farther makai, I recognized tall juniper trees lining the left side of the footpath. Unfortunately, this pleasant section transitioned to a dark, muddy stretch dominated by thick stands of guava and rose apple, with ample evidence of wild boar habitation.As the Awini Trail neared the ocean, it began paralleling the coast, hala trees growing on both sides of the footpath. Mark and I then descended to Honokane Iki Stream via three long switchbacks, forded the waterway and passed yet another rustic cabin en route to a lovely campsite on a shaded mound above a scant black-sand beach fronting a small but secluded bay at the mouth of Honokane Iki Stream. Quoting a short excerpt from John Hall's write-up of his 1977 Kohala Ditch trip,"Cliffs lined the sides of the little inlet, and coconut palms graced the shore at the head. In all, it would be hard to find a more beautiful and tranquil camping spot."**
This being our final day of the trek, Mark and I did not have the luxury of camping here; instead, we spent over an hour relaxing/napping on the mound, gazing at the powerful surf rolling into the cove and the white wake of waves washing upon the black-sand beach.Leaving Honokane Iki Bay behind, we started climbing out of the valley at 3:30 pm via the first of three switchbacks. A short distance below the crest of the ridge that separates Honokane Iki from Honokane Nui, we encountered our first humans, a young couple on a day hike of the coast.At the top of the ridge, Mark and I enjoyed a superb vista of the rugged, towering sea cliff located on the east wall of Honokane Iki Bay and Paokalani Island behind it a short distance off shore, as well as an excellent view of the rocky sea cliffs along the coast toward Pololu Valley all the way to Akoakoa Point.  After descending to the floor of Honokane Nui Valley, working through a thick bamboo forest and crossing wide Honokane Nui Stream, the two of us stopped for another break. More bamboo followed, replaced by a mixed forest of Christmas berry and java plum. We exited the valley via three switchbacks and at the crest of the ridge were again treated to fine views of an impressive sea cliff, Paokalani Island, waves breaking just off of rocky Honokane Nui Beach, and the copse of tall ironwoods behind the beach.An open, windy, twisting section of trail ensued, then Mark and I descended to the long ironwood grove behind Pololu Beach via several switchbacks. At 5:35 pm the two of us reached the mouth of the Pololu estuary and sat down on the rocks behind the black-sand beach. We observed a couple frolicking in the ocean just beyond the shore break, and a father with his young son walking along the coast toward the ironwoods. When the couple passed me on their way to the lookout, we exchanged greetings and I asked how their swim went. "Great! The water is warm!" the wahine replied, so I decided to go for a brief swim myself.Mark commenced the final ascent of our trip to the Pololu Lookout at 6:15 pm, and I did the same as soon as I had towled off from the invigorating dip.The climb of the State DLNR Pololu Trail switchbacks served as the exclamation point to our trek. At least 2 gushing waterfalls could be seen in the distance pouring down the rocky, sheer sea cliffs into the Pacific Ocean. The islands off the coast, the white wake of waves cruising onto black-sand Pololu Beach almost directly below and a terrific vista of Pololu Valley stretching toward the summit of the Kohala Mountain Range also visible.As I gazed toward the upper reaches of Pololu Valley, I thought to myself, "We were back there a few days ago".Finally, at 6:46 pm I met Mark at the Pololu Valley Lookout adjacent to the rental car (it was right where I parked it and completely undamaged!). We loaded our packs into the vehicle and sped off, bound for a convenience store in Kawaihae to consume dinner, and, later, an overnight stay at nearby Spencer Beach Park.Notes:The windward Kohala Mountains average 150 inches of rain per year, so "Summer (May-October) is the best time of year to take this trip. The weather is usually drier then, and the streams are easier to cross. Whenever you go, be prepared for rain and high water."*The rustic cabins Mark and I discovered along the trail are privately owned, and I've been informed that the owners do not welcome uninvited backpackers. Fortunately for Mark and I, the cottages were unoccupied during our trip. Otherwise, we would most certainly have been told to leave.Hawaii Forest & Trail, an eco-tour company on the Big Island, conducts day hikes to Kapoloa Falls twice daily, the first starting at approx. 8:30 am from the Pololu Valley Lookout. Unless the reader of this literary work desires to mingle with tourists, it is a good idea to get an early start to avoid encountering this group.Mahalo:To Stuart Ball for providing a topo map of the region which contained excellent information (i.e. campsites, important landmarks, water sources, etc.).To Mark Short for being a terrific backpacking parter and an adept map reader. So where shall we go next, Mark? :-)REFERENCES* Ball, Jr., Stuart M. THE BACKPACKERS GUIDE TO HAWAI'I. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 1996.A History of the Kohala Ditch written by Michael Gomes, Waimea Gazette, September 1987, Pages 12-15.** Hall, John B., "Hiking the Kohala Ditch". Along the Trail The Hawaiian Trail & Mountain Club Newsletter, January - February - March 2002. Richard McMahon, Editor.PAU


  1. Excellent write up. I just was on the big island for a Waimanu trip. I would love to return some day for this type hike.

  2. Wow, great write up of your trip! In 2011 were they still doing tours of Kapoloa Falls?

  3. Sadly, I think this hike is no more. :( Earthquakes have destroyed the falls.